Distraction & Diversion: New Challenges, Old Problem
A sermon delivered July 3, 2022 by Fr. Justin Clemente to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Part three of a four-part series on Technology and the Christian.
It has been said that “only the devil has no time.” But while Christians are not slaves to time or productivity, we are called to redeem the time. That’s the way the King James Version translates Ephesians 5:16, which the ESV has as “make the best use of the time.” What does that look like in relationship to pop and personal technology? This is a particular area of discipleship that I want to press into further with you today.
Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan put it this way, “Nobody has ever had to learn this before. Nobody can teach the rising generation how to [faithfully use the new tech as believers]. … The danger they face, of course, is that the tools set the agenda. A tool of communication is a tool for communicating something.” He says, “Media don’t lie around passively, waiting for us to come along and find them useful for some project we have in mind. They tell us what to do and, more significantly, what to want to do. There is a current in the stream, and if we don’t know how to swim, we shall be carried by it. I see someone doing something and I want to do it, too. Then I forget whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do.” (12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke, pgs. 18-19)
As we’ve seen already, the new technology makes the challenge of distraction and diversion more acute and more potentially damaging. The average person today will check their smartphone every 4.3 minutes while awake. For more than half of us (the “us” there being Christians), it will be the first thing we check within minutes of waking. Tony Reinke reports, “When asked whether [survey respondents] were more likely to check email and social media before or after spiritual disciplines on a typical morning, 73 percent said before.” (Data cited in 12 Ways You Phone is Changing You, pgs. 41-42) 70% of parents sleep with the phone next to them, while 82% of teens do the same thing (Barna research, cited on pg. 109 of Tech-Wise Family). Waking or sleeping, we are, to say the least, distracted people.
We now live in a world practically oozing with endless distraction. And as a result, we are more restless, anxious, and bored than ever before. We suffer, not only from ADD, but spiritual ADD. In fact, the word bore, as in “this preacher is such a bore!” is a modern word. Andy Crouch notes that, “The English word [boredom] does not appear before the 1850s…[And b]efore the eighteenth century, there simply wasn’t a common word for that feeling of frustration and lassitude that overtakes so many of us so often.” He concludes, “The technology that promises to release us from boredom is actually making it worse – making us more prone to seek empty distractions than we have ever been.” (The Tech-Wise Family, pgs. 139-141)
We do want to take a moment to define terms, though. What I mean by distraction? Tony Reinke defines distraction this way: “True distraction includes anything (even a good thing) that veils our spiritual eyes from the shortness of time and from the urgency of…heightened expectation as we await the summing up of all history.” (12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, pg. 49) Pretty epic. Distraction is being defined here as anything that takes our affections away from Christ.
But distraction not ultimately new. In fact, distraction is rooted in our fallen condition – it’s something we have to be aware of. Apart from Christ, we are naturally, or better yet, unnaturally, given over to distraction. It was Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century Christian apologist and mathematician who said that all man’s problems arise from not being able to sit quietly in his room by himself. He writes, “Hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that the prison is so horrible a punishment, hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible.” (Pensees, pg. 53) This sickness comes right out of God’s pronouncement of death over Adam and Eve’s grievous sin. Now, we tend to find it difficult to show up and do the good work that God has given us to do (think Genesis 2 here – cultivating and keeping the garden in communion with the Lord) and we tend to find it easy to get lost in amusement. In short, we now want to be diverted creatures.
Well, you get the point. Let’s turn now and look at the antidote: time and life redeemed in Ephesians 5.
Redeemed Time: Freedom & Urgency in Ephesians 5:15-21
Look first with me at verses 15-17.
Looking at verse 15, we want to note first that Paul assumes that Christians are going to be wise people – that they are walking wisely through life and not giving themselves over to trivial pursuits. Not that being a Christian makes you automatically wise, but that they are learning how to walk wisely – walking takes practice. John Stott says here, “Everything worth doing requires care. …So as Christians we must take trouble over our Christian life. We must treat it as the serious thing it is.” (The Message of Ephesians, pgs. 201-202)
Then look at verse 16: this phrase “making the best use of the time” is rich. I already referenced the KJV here, “redeeming the time.” It’s actually just one word in the Greek, which means literally something like “to buy back.” This word is used especially of purchasing a slave from bondage to freedom. Something like “liberating time” seems appropriate.
I want to stop right here and ask you this question: If the gospel is for real in your life, what influence does it have on your use of time? For the first three chapters of this letter, Paul has been rooting everything he now says in the Gospel of God. If you really believe that it is finished and done in Jesus Christ – that he is your ransom, your justification before God, and your perfect righteousness, that he alone did the work necessary to bring you to God – then how are you to redeem the time? Let me ask the question a different way: if you really believe that what needs to be done in your life has been accomplished in Jesus, then what would you do with the rest of your life?
You certainly won’t be a slave to productivity and workaholism on the one hand or a slave to the trivial pursuits of pop technology on the other hand, unwilling to take up the good work God has given you to do. You are gloriously free from that kind of inane slavery.
The early Christians spoke of the Otium Sanctum or “Holy Leisure” of the Christian. That phrase means a lot to an accomplishment-oriented, task-driven person like me. It means, if I can put this way, that Christians have been reconciled to time. We’re no longer afraid that time is running out for us, that our lives will be unfinished or that we have fight tooth and nail for everything we can get. The psalms speak of the foolishness of chasing after anxious toil. So Psalm 127:3 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early, and take rest so late, and eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
So a huge part of redeeming the time, buying it back from slavery, is knowing and living in the fact that you can lay your head down at night, knowing that your deepest needs have been met in Jesus Christ, and that whatever he calls you now to take and do in him, will bear good fruit. Nothing you can find on your phone can add to or subtract from that.
Let me press into this a little bit more: Where does Paul go in his discussion of redeemed the time? Look now at verses 18-21. He goes to the corporate life of God’s people – the church. He contrasts being drunk or out of control with being Spirit-filled and therefore more and more self-controlled.
John Stott gives four marks of the Spirit-filled life here: 1) Fellowship, 2) Worship, 3) Gratitude, and 4) Submission – that is to say, the ability to prefer one another out of reverence for and obedience to Christ.
Now here’s what a occurs to me: to the world around us, the lavish worship we spend upon God must look like a royal waste of time. So Paul says redeem the time…worship a lot! What occurs to me is that this kind of worship-oriented, Spirit-filled life (lived out in the Body!) never co-exists with a life full of distraction, diversion, and slavery to the moment. Isn’t that right? It’s impossible – we can’t serve two masters here! So we redeem the time, first of all, but knowing our freedom is found in Jesus Christ to worship God our Father.
But then look what Paul says in verse 16: “redeeming the time…because the days are evil.” It may seem like a contradiction, but the second way in which we redeem the time, is by knowing the urgency of the time we live in. St. Paul says in Romans 13:12, in that great passage we read during Adventide, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the day spoken of in that verse is the Day of Christ’s coming. The Christian is to be on tiptoe, waiting for these evil days to disappear like a ghost and for the enduring and good day to dawn. The great and singular word written over the Christian’s use of his time is the one Jesus wrote for us himself: “Watch! Stay awake, for I may come at any moment.” There is an urgency in these days for us for we know that what might be stolen from us now is the one necessary thing: Jesus Christ and his gospel promises. As Sundar Singh said of the present age, “When we have left this world, we will not have another chance to bear the cross for Christ.”
Tony Reinke compares the Christian life and the timetable of “these evil days” to a soccer match. He writes, “The death and resurrection of Christ has marked the beginning of the end, the runoff, the moment when a soccer match clock exceeds ninety minutes, and ticking. From now on, whenever we attempt to define distractions, especially in the most complex areas of life … we must seek to do so by seeing ourselves inside of God’s urgent and soon-to-end timeline for this creation.” (12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, pg. 49)
Reclaiming Your Life from Distraction
For us here today, maybe we just need to end by taking a look at the concrete patterns of our lives. What are they telling us? We’re blessed in this church to have the resources of a vast, old, wise and faithful tradition. Our Anglican catechism, To Be a Christian, commends to us having a rule of life. “A discipline by which [we] order [our] worship, work, and leisure as a pleasing sacrifice to God. It says we need this “because [our] fallen nature is disordered, distracted, and self-centered. A rule of life helps [us] to resist sin and establish godly habits, through which the Holy Spirit will increasingly conform [us] to the image of Christ.”
In our closing moments of silence, I’d like you each to use the “Distraction Diagnostic,” examining one of the three areas listed, asking the Lord where he wants to replace disordered beliefs and habits with the Gospel and godly habits. Let’s do that now.